Overview (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
The common critical assumption is that the short story was first recognized as a literary genre with unique characteristics in the 1840’s with Edgar Allan Poe’s discussions of a “unified effect” of “the tale proper.” However, Poe did not develop these ideas out of thin air; short prose fiction was a topic of critical discussion in Germany in the decades preceding Poe’s influential assertions.
Friedrich Schlegel was the first to theorize generically about short fiction, which, in keeping with the precedent established by Giovanni Boccaccio and Miguel de Cervantes, he called novelle. Schlegel says the form usually focuses on the oral telling of a new, unknown story, which should arouse interest in and of itself alone, without connection to “the nations, the times, the progress of humanity, or even the relation to culture itself.” Schlegel also suggested that although the anecdotal basis of short fiction may be trivial or its subject matter slight, its manner or way of telling must be appealing. One corollary of this focus on “manner” rather than “matter,” Schlegel noted, was that the narrator takes on a more significant role in short fiction—a shift related to the general trend in Romantic poetry toward a lyric point of view. The first effect of this trend, in such writers as Washington Irving, was an increased emphasis on the style of telling; later with Poe, it shifted emphasis to the direct involvement of the narrator...
(The entire section is 625 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Theory of Short Fiction Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
The Short Story as a Romantic Genre (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
The basic romantic nature of the short story, both in its focus on unusual events and on the subjectivity of the author, was strongly voiced during the later part of the nineteenth century when Ambrose Bierce entered into the argument then raging over the romance versus the novel form. In his attack on the William Dean Howells school of fiction in his essay “The Short Story,” Bierce said, “to them nothing is probable outside the narrow domain of the commonplace man’s commonplace experience.”
Other short-story writers have noted this same romantic characteristic of the form. Henry James said he rejoiced in the anecdote, which he defined as something that “oddly happened” to someone. More recently Flannery O’Connor has claimed the form makes “alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe everyday, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” Short stories, says O’Connor, “lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected.” Of her own work she says, it takes its character from “a reasonable use of the unreasonable,” a quality that both Poe and Hawthorne would have echoed about their stories. “The peculiar problem of the short-story writer,” O’Connor says, is “how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible his problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him.”
The only extended...
(The entire section is 342 words.)
Many critics have noted the fact that the short story does not deal with generalized social reality or abstract social values. In fact, the form seems to thrive best in societies where there is a diversity or fragmentation of values and people. This geographic and social fragmentation of peoples and values has often been cited as one reason why the short story quickly became popular in nineteenth century America. In 1924, Katherine Fullerton Gerould said that American short-story writers have dealt with peculiar atmospheres and special moods, for America has no centralized civilization. “The short story does not need a complex and traditional background so badly as the novel does.” Ruth Suckow in 1927 also suggested that the chaos and unevenness of American life made the short story a natural expression. Life in America was so multitudinous that “its meaning could be caught only in fragments, perceived only by will-of-the-wisp gleams, preserved only in tiny pieces of perfection.”
More recent comments on the English short story by Wendell V. Harris and Lionel Stevenson suggest somewhat the same reason for the difference between the English short story and the American form. Stevenson points out that as soon as a culture becomes more complex, brief narratives expand or “agglomerate” and thus cause the short story to lose its identity. Throughout the nineteenth century in England, the novel predominated. Only writers, like Thomas Hardy, who...
(The entire section is 1091 words.)
The Short Story vs. the Novel (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
The short story is a narrative form that makes the reader aware of reality as perspective. Nadine Gordimer, the South African short-story writer, notes a general dissatisfaction that writers have with the novel as a means of “netting ultimate reality.” The short story, she says, may be better equipped than the novel to capture ultimate reality in the modern world, where truth is perspective. Short- story writers have always known what novelists seem to have recently discovered: The strongest convention of the novel, “prolonged coherence of tone,” is false to human reality in which “contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness.” The short-story writer’s art, says Gordimer, “is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment.” The short story aims at a discrete moment of truth, not the moment of truth, “because the short story doesn’t deal in cumulatives.”
It has often been recognized that the situations that the short story presents are quite different from separable incidents in a novel. As early as 1909, William James Dawson, a critic at the North American Review, suggested that incidents that are suited for novels or incidents that could be expanded into novels are not really incidents for short stories at all: “Life consists both of prolonged sequences and of flashing episodes. The first affords the material of the novelist, the second of the...
(The entire section is 534 words.)
The Pattern of the Short Story (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
In 1916, Barry Pain suggested that the length of the form creates in the short story something very rarely found in the novel “in the same degree of intensity—a very curious, haunting, and suggestive quality.” This haunting quality, this intensity that manifests itself in the short story, however, does not come from the incident chosen alone; it comes from a tight dramatic patterning of the incident in such a way that its dramatic tension is exposed and felt. Danforth Ross in his study of the American short story says that the major contribution that Poe makes to the short fiction form is that he brings tension, long a characteristic of poetry, to the story form. Whereas Irving’s stories meander, Poe attempted to present a story as a dramatist does in a play. In an article in 1943, Gorham Bert Munson says that the O. Henry story at the turn of the century marked a degeneration of the Poe short story. “Poe aimed not at a transcription of actuality, but at a patterned dramatization of life.” For this, says Munson, he needed a “storyable incident,” an anecdote in the Jamesian sense of something that “oddly happened,” an anecdote with a hard nugget of latent value.
The nugget, however, must be laid bare of its latent value. By metaphor and condensation the latent must be made manifest in whatever seeming artificial manner. Even W. Somerset Maugham, whose story preference was for one that could be told in a drawing room or smoker, insisted...
(The entire section is 431 words.)
The Limitations of the Short Story (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
The highly formalistic nature of the short story has also been criticized by those critics and novelists who have affirmed the value of naturalistic presentation and social involvement and awareness. It was criticized by the naturalist writers in the nineteenth century and has been scorned by the Marxist writers and critics since the 1930’s. James T. Farrell criticized the form in two essays in the 1930’s for its sterile formality and its failure to be a vehicle for revolutionary ideology. Maxwell Geismar in 1964 lashed out at The New Yorker school of short-story writer, which included J. D. Salinger, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and J. F. Powers, for the narrow range of their vision and subject matter and their stress on the intricate craftsmanship of the well-made story.
Another reason why the short story has not been popular or has not maintained its place in modern literature is that readers prefer the novel precisely because it does not demand anything more than perseverance in a continuous flow of reading, becoming one with the sustained rhythm and tone of the work. William Dean Howells noted in 1901 that although the short story may be attractive when one runs across one singly in a magazine, the short story in a collection seems most repellant to the reader. The reason stems from the very intensity and compression and suggestiveness of the form itself. Reading one story, says Howells, one can receive a pleasant “spur to his own...
(The entire section is 346 words.)
The Subjective Impulse in the Short Story (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
In addition to the kind of event or situation it deals with and the tight dramatic patterning of that event, another element of the short story that creates unity and compression is the subjective and lyrical impulse of the writer. Elizabeth Bowen has said that thefirst necessity for the short story, at the set out, is necessariness. The story, that is to say, must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough, to have made the writer write. The story should have the valid central emotion and inner spontaneity of the lyric; it should magnetize the imagination and give pleasure—of however disturbing, painful or complex a kind. The story should be as composed, in the plastic sense, and as visual as a picture. The necessary subject dictates its own relevance. The art of the short story permits a break at what in the novel would be the crux of the plot: the short story, free from the longueurs of the novel is also exempt from the novel’s conclusiveness—too often forced and false: it may thus more nearly than the novel approach aesthetic and moral truth.
Eudora Welty has said that all stories by a writer come from some source within: “All of one writer’s stories must take on their quality, carry their signature, because of one characteristic lyrical impulse of his mind—the impulse to praise, love, to call up, to prophesy.” Something in the outside world, some person, place, thing leads back to the emotions in a specific...
(The entire section is 845 words.)
Leaving Things Out in the Short Story (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Another aspect of the lyric nature of the story is its tendency to “leave things out.” Hemingway once said, “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.” Rudyard Kipling suggested, “A tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know the operation has been performed, but everyone feels the effect.” Anton Chekhov once wrote to I. L. Shcheglov, “In short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because,—because—I don’t know why.” In another letter Chekhov says that it is compactness that makes small things alive. “Alive” here must be understood to be life at the remove of art, of life more alive for being compressed. Chekhov once wrote to Maxim Gorky that he lacked restraint and thus grace. “When a man spends the least possible number of movements over some definite action, that is grace.” Another implication of this need for compression is that for a story to be good, it must be perfect, a demand made on the form that is never made upon the novel.
This lyric nature of the short story has led some critics, such as Sister Mary Joselyn Baldeshwiler, to argue that although all stories have a mimetic base, some have additional elements that are usually associated with verse. Some of these poetic elements she notes are: “(1) marked deviation from chronological sequence (2) exploitation of...
(The entire section is 491 words.)
The Short Story and the New Critics (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Professors did not really begin to consider the short story seriously in college classrooms until Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s 1943 short- story textbook Understanding Fiction made analysis of individual examples of the form respectable. Arno Lehman Bader’s essay made the formalist approach to the form quite explicit in 1945. Confronting the common complaint that the modern literary short story has no structure, he tries to show that although a narrative structure is still present in the form, its presentation and resolution are so indirect that the reader must work harder to find the perceived relationships of the parts of the story. John Walter Sullivan developed this rather simple and general assessment into a more rigid formalist methodology in 1951. Using Mark Schorer’s comment that the short story is an art of “moral revelation,” Sullivan asserts that the fundamental methodological concept of the short story is a change from innocence to knowledge—a change that can be either “inter-concatenate” (occurring within the main character) or “extra-concatenate” (occurring within a peripheral character). In 1956, Theodore Albert Stroud, extending Bader’s and Sullivan’s New Critical approaches, focused more on aesthetic than on narrative pattern, arguing that the best way to discern pattern in the short story is to examine how the completeness of a story results from the units or episodes in a work combining to make credible a...
(The entire section is 384 words.)
New Theories of the Short Story (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Since the late 1970’s there has been a revival of interest in the short story by literary critics, partially sparked by the publication in 1976 of Short Story Theories, in which Charles E. May argued that what was needed was a theory of the form derived from the “underlying vision of the short story, its characteristic mode of understanding and confronting reality.” In that same year, in an essay in the journal Studies in Short Fiction, May suggested an initial definition of the short story’s underlying vision and argued that Poe’s description of the form’s “unique effect” was consistent with philosopher Ernst Cassirer’s concept of “mythic perception.” In several essays written during the 1980’s, according to critic Susan Lohafer, May has become one of the most consistent proponents of the notion that there is an inherent relationship between a characteristic short-story structure and its theme.
It is this very issue—whether a unified generic definition of the short story is possible—that divided short-story theorists in the 1980’s into two groups. The difference between those critics and writers who doubt that a definition of the short story is possible and those who argue for such a definition revolves around two different concepts of generic definition. The antidefinition group insist on a positivist definition that includes characteristics common to all examples of the short story that will distinguish...
(The entire section is 2118 words.)
Modern Genre Theory and the Short Story (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Much of the critical resistance to short-story genre theory in the past has resulted from two basic misapprehensions. First, short-story critics have often failed to distinguish between two different meanings of the term “genre.” Either they have treated historical genres as if they were theoretical concepts and then gleefully pronounced genre theory a failure because historical genres change or they have assumed that one generic approach should fit all narrative genres and then triumphantly surrendered when a theory based on the novel does not clarify the characteristics of the short story. The short story deserves a generic theory based on the characteristics of the form recognized both by authors and readers throughout its history, a theory that should be judged on its explanatory power in understanding the form’s historical changes without insisting that the short story is a “pure” form or that its history has been “evolutionary.”
The basic generic question that must be confronted by critics of the short story is, What are the significant theoretical and historical implications of shortness in narrative? If narrative is one of the basic means by which one comes to know the world, then how does short narrative “know the world” differently than the novel knows the world? The question that short-story critics must confront is, what methods and means of seeing and conceptualizing reality are accessible to prose fictions that are short?...
(The entire section is 1204 words.)